Best Smoky Mountain Trails for Backpacking

Posted by Darryl Payne in National Park

Hiking Smoky Mountains for Panoramic Pictures

Few hiking experiences compare with the Great Smoky Mountains. As a hiker, you'll be treated to scenic views, wildlife, waterfalls, diverse plant life, pristine forests, and historical sites such as the remains of settler villages. The Smokies have a variety of options for all levels of hikers. You can enjoy an easy morning or afternoon trek, a day excursion that takes you in a convenient loop, or overnight backpacking trips that are truly an adventure.

Backpacking Trips

If you really want to unplug, consider an overnight backpacking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Note that overnight trips require a permit and reservations for backcountry camping.)

Gregory Ridge

The Gregory Ridge Trailhead begins near popular Cades Cove and travels up to Gregory Bald, an area famous for the colorful azaleas that bloom at the summit. Pick up the Long Hungry Ridge Trail and connect to the Twentymile Loop Trail and Wolf Ridge Trail, or connect to the Appalachian Trail to create a trip that suits your time frame. Shelter in your own tent or in hiker cabins along the way.


Hike the Bote Mountain Trail to Spence Field, where you'll pass through arches of rhododendron and walk down well-worn livestock paths toward amazing views of the mountains. From here you can pick up the Appalachian Trail to Rocky Top, a steep climb of 550 feet. From Rocky Top continue to the summit of Thunderhead Mountain before descending along trails that offer outstanding views of Cades Cove.

Backpacking Loops

If your time is limited, or if you prefer day hikes, there are plenty of loops from which to choose.

Cumberland Gap

The 5.6-mile Cumberland Gap Loop begins at the Elkmont trailhead, an old logging site where you can visit the old cottages where hikers use to stay before the national part was established.

Rainbow Falls

Get an early start for this breathtaking 14.1-mile hike that takes you from the Cherokee Orchard trailhead past Rainbow Falls to the summit of Mt. LeConte, and along the scenic Bullhead trail. This trail climbs steadily as you ascend Mt. LeConte, but there several picnic spots along the way that are perfect for a rest. You'll cross two footbridges before you arrive at the 80-foot-high Rainbow Falls, then you'll begin the 1,700-foot ascent to the summit of Mt. LeConte.

Rich Mountain Loop

For a vigorous but shorter day hike, pick up the Rich Mountain Loop trailhead from the Cades Cove parking lot. This 8.5-mile hike offers views of Cades Cove and Tuckaleechee Cove, and leads past fields of wildflowers and the historic John Oliver cabin.

Clingman's Dome

Clingman's Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At 6,643 feet, it offers amazing views of the mountains, the park, and beyond. You can reach Clingman's Dome by car, but hiking in gives you moderate elevation grades, no traffic, and better views. The Little River / Goshen Prong Route is a beautiful 13-mile hike from the Elkmont Ranger Station, while the Noland Creek / Forney Ridge is a shorter 12.1-mile hike from Lakeview Drive.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is one of the most popular areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and for good reason. The wildlife here is spectacular and hikers can explore the remains of historical churches, cabins, and other settlement buildings.

For a short hike, take the 4.2-mile Abrams Falls Trail, which passes by sparkling Abrams Falls. Or take the Ace Gap Trail, which traverses 5.6 miles of pristine woodland before it becomes the Beard Cane Trail that leads to Abrams Creek.

Big Creek Trail

Big Creek Trail is a hiker's dream. This trail follows an old railroad grade on a smooth, wide path along Big Creek. Just a mile and a half into the trail you'll spot Midnight Hole, a deep pool famous for its emerald green color. Hikers have even seen trout leaping in this spot. Big Creek Trail also passes Mouse Creek Falls and Walnut Bottom, an old logging camp.

Scenic Helicopter Tours

One of the best ways to get oriented in the Great Smoky Mountains is to take in the lay of the land from the air. Scenic Helicopter Tours will fly you over the park so you can see landmarks such as Cades Cove, Clingman's Dome, The Chimneys, Mt. LeConte, and The Sawteeth.

Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains, whether on a refreshing morning walk or on a recharging multi-day trek, offers moments of total tranquility and peace, which are all too rare these days. If you're planning an overnight stay, consider scanning your route from the air with a helicopter tour of the park. Whatever your plans, grab your boots and map, and prepare for an unforgettable break from the ordinary in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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